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Students can keep boards on track

Sunday, November 30, 2003

By Jane Elizabeth, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Marina Harrison has the distinction of once being the only student in America to serve on a local school board, with full voting rights.

She also is one of the few ex-school board members in America ever to dance on a stage in Atlantic City wearing a sparkly bra top and skin-tight silver pants.

Jed Kirschbaum. The Baltimore Sun via AP
Marina Harrison: "This is where I learned the definition of the terms 'pontificate' and 'standing on a soapbox.' "

Harrison, 25, is the current Miss Maryland and finished in the top five in the Miss America pageant held earlier this month.

Her talent: Belting out a rendition of Alicia Keys' hit song, "Fallin.' " Her platform: Providing the best public education for America's children.

Harrison said her nomination to the Anne Arundel County, Md., school board during her senior year in high school is the reason she now travels the state speaking about the need for high-quality education in public schools.

"It's important for people to know that this is not something I picked up along the way so I could be in a pageant," she said.

While about 200 students nationwide sit on school boards, according to the National School Boards Association, very few have voting rights on any matter. But when Harrison served her one-year term in 1998, she was given the right to vote on every matter before the board.

She also attended every meeting, even closed sessions to decide on hiring and firing school employees and dealing with student expulsions. That's where she realized that, even as a high school student, she bore a grave responsibility.

"I saw all of the students' records" in disciplinary matters, she said. "It's hard to sit right across from a fellow student and make those decisions. ... It's a lot of power to give a student."

Harrison, after being appointed to the board by then-Gov. Parris Glendenning, took an oath with the rest of the board to uphold privacy rules and ethical behavior. Her fellow students respected that, she said.

A few teachers, she said, "had a difficult attitude," but her principal at Meade High School sent notes to staff members at the beginning of the school year to ask that her position not be "compromised."

That year, she spent many long nights in board rooms and missed school the first Wednesday of each month for meetings. She dealt with school uniform debates, whether Maya Angelou's poetry should be included on the high school required reading list, a difficult capital budget and some local political agendas.

"This is where I learned the definition of the terms 'pontificate' and 'standing on a soapbox,' " said Harrison, who was paid a $200-a-month stipend, just like every other board member.

Harrison graduated from the University of Maryland last spring with a degree in communications and public relations, and a minor in government and politics. Eventually, she wants to be the White House press secretary, and believes her experience as a public servant on the school board will help her reach that goal.

About 15 percent of boards have had an official or unofficial student member, said the school boards association, which sponsors a support group called the National Caucus of Young School Board Members.

"I think every board should do it," said Harrison, who now lives in Severn, Md. Students, she said, "keep the board on track. They had their own agendas and I didn't have one.

"You have someone right there in front of you who can say, 'Let me tell you what really happens in the classroom.' "

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